Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for April, 2012

CD review/ Old Ideas – Leonard Cohen

Old Ideas/ Leonard Cohen

Genre: Singer-songwriter

Sony Music/ Import Rs 599

Rating: *****

AS a music journalist, one of my biggest regrets is that I couldn’t meet and interview Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, even after tracking him down on his 2001 visit to Mumbai, and speaking to him over the telephone.

On a tip-off, I had found that Cohen was in Mumbai to meet his spiritual guru Ramesh Balsekar, and was staying at the Shalimar hotel in Kemps Corner. On first attempt, I was lucky to be connected to his room. The famous voice answered. Goose flesh! However, he apologised and said he was on a personal visit and wasn’t keen on giving any interviews. When I persisted by saying I just wanted to collect his autograph, he said he was leaving in 15 minutes, and to try the next day. I could never connect with him after that. Sweat, disappointment!

Though I’ve personally followed the other great singer-songwriter Bob Dylan a bit more deeply, I’ve had my share of Cohen phases over the years. It began in 1987 or so, when I heard a compilation containing the songs ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’. In fact, I had always associated ‘Suzanne’ with Neil Diamond, and was somewhat surprised to discover it was written by the then-new-to-me Cohen.

Somewhere down the line, I  got the tape of ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’, which has the songs ‘Iodine’, ‘Paper-thin Hotel’ and my all-time Cohen favourite ‘I Left A Woman Waiting’. Later, I randomly got exposed to classics like ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, ‘Our Lady Of Solitude’, ‘Tower Of Song’, ‘Waiting For The Miracle’ (used in the ‘Wonder Boys’ soundtrack) and ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, and it was only over the last six or seven years that I decided to explore his earlier albums more closely.

Cohen’s latest album ‘Old Ideas’ comes seven years after his previous ‘Dear Heather’. The first thing that strikes you is how his voice is now sounding even deeper. As a reviewer in Amazon wrote, his voice has now passed its way from the whisky and cigarettes stage, and is now on its way to a chronic bronchitis sound. That may seem like a negative remark for some, but the fact is that at 77, Cohen is actually in prime vocal form. He has always had a distinct timbre, but that ‘boom’ is sounding more intoxicating and heavenly now.

‘Old Ideas’ contains 10 new songs, of which three fall in the uptempo category — the other being laidback and moving. While Cohen is involved in the penning of each song, he’s joined by a group of co-writers including longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard and close associate Anjani Thomas, who’s worked with him on three previous albums.

The mood is set with the haunting ‘Going Home’, which has an opening tune reminiscent of ‘I Left A Woman Waiting’. Accompanied by some melodious violins and charming female choruses (a regular feature on this album), Cohen’s voice thunders as he sings: “He will speak these words of wisdom, like a sage, a man of vision, though he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube”. The way he uses open spaces between words is extraordinary.

At seven minutes and a half, ‘Amen’ is the only long song here, and the sudden burst of trumpet gives it an exotic, jazzy feel. More violins and female back-up follow in ‘Show Me The Place’, but it’s the blues-based and brisk ‘Darkness’ which offers sudden variety. While the United Heart Touring Band chips in with neat arrangements on this song, lines like “I used to love the rainbow, I used to love the view, I loved the early morning, I’d pretend that it was new, But I caught the darkness baby, and I got it worse than you” reflect Cohen’s songwriting brilliance.

Other lyrical gems come from ‘Anyhow’, which requests another chance for reunion from a separated one (“I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”) and the Anjani Thomas co-written ‘Crazy To Love You” (“I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie”). A wonderful chorus line dominates the spiritually uplifting and sing-along marvel ‘Come Healing’, whereas ‘Banjo’ is a country-flavoured song with a pleasant acoustic guitar and smooth cornet.

The album concludes with the bedroom-voiced ‘Lullaby’, whereas the quicker ‘Different Sides’ makes smart use of the Hammond B3 organ, and has Cohen singing: “Both of us say there are laws to be obey, but frankly I don’t like your tone, You want to change the way I make love, I want to leave it alone”.

The best thing about ‘Old Ideas’ is the simplicity of the tunes, the quality of the words and its overall replayability. Morning, afternoon or night, the songs haunt you. Though my other favourite albums have been ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’, ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’ and ‘Recent Songs’, his latest effort would rate among his best, and arguably his most stylishly produced.

In terms of numbers, Cohen hasn’t really been as prolific as some of his contemporaries — 12 studio albums in 45 years, in comparison to Dylan’s 34 in a 50-year career. But over time, Cohen has made an impact as one of the most powerful songwriters, using themes as diverse as love, sex, religion, politics, war and depression, accompanied by innovative metaphors and remarkable imagery. This venture, which focusses on the themes of love, desire, hope, suffering and regret, just proves that ‘Old Ideas’ can be great ideas too.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic


CD review/ We All Raise our Voices to the Air – The Decemberists

We All Raise Our Voices To The Air/ The Decemberists

Genre: Indie folk/ folk-rock

EMI Music-Capitol Records/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

THOUGH they’ve been around for over a decade, I had my first exposure to the music of The Decemberists early last year, when they released their album ‘The King Is Dead’. What impressed me immediately was the earthy folk-rock sound which flowed consistently through all songs. The appearance of REM guitarist Peter Buck on three songs lent an interesting twist.

Marketed under the ‘indie folk’ genre, The Decemberists hail from Oregon in the US, but seem to have been influenced by a lot of British folk music too. Songs like ‘Down By The Water’, ‘Calamity Song’, ‘Rise To Me’, ‘June Hymn’, ‘All Arise’, ‘This Is Why We Fight’ and ‘Rox In The Box’ effortlessly blend both folk cultures, using electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums along with violin, bouzouki, mandolin, cello and banjo.

Before I could lay my hands on the earlier Decemberists albums, I checked out their latest venture, which is a two-CD live compilation called ‘We All Raise Our Voices To The Air’. Culled from various concerts held in the US last year, this 20-track collection is a must for anybody who enjoys live albums. In fact, it’s one of the best live albums to come out during the past few years, complete with pre-song announcements and crowd response.

Much of the credit to The Decemberists sound would obviously go to singer-songwriter-guitarist Colin Meloy, who’s been influenced as much by REM, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Morrissey, as he has been by 60s British folk revival acts like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Nic Jones.

However, there’s some equally commendable support from Chris Funk (guitar, mandolin), Jenny Conlee (keyboards, Hammond organ, glockenspiel), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums). Though REM’s Buck doesn’t play here, guest appearances by violinist Sara Watkins and the Portland Auxillary Brass Band on saxophones and trumpets lend variety to the sound.

The emphasis on this live compilation is on the newer songs from ‘The King Is Dead’. Yet, there is a fair representation from the earlier recordings too. The opening song ‘The Infanta’, a perfect example of the Decemberists sound, is followed by the brilliant ‘Calamity Song’ and ‘Rise To Me’ from ‘The King Is Dead’. One of the band’s earliest recordings ‘Leslie Ann Levine’, which was the opening song from their debut album in 2002, the more recent ‘Down By The Water’ and the 16-minute opus ‘The Crane Wife’ add to the charm of Disc 1.

The second side has crisp renditions of the pleasant ‘Oceanside’, the sing-along beauty ‘Rox In The Box’, the moving ‘June Hymn’ and the hard-hitting ‘This Is Why We Fight’. With its catchy riff and smooth pianos, ‘All Arise’ is one of my favourities. But the last two songs — both over 10 minutes long — add a new dimension. While ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ has clear progressive rock influences, ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ starts off with outstanding vocals, before getting more psychedelic, using some brilliantly orchestrated trumpets, tenor and baritone saxophones.

Clearly, The Decemberists are one of the front-runners in the ‘indie folk’ movement, which encompasses 90s-and-thereafter acts blending alternative and modern rock with folk and country influences. The Net mentions a lengthy list of such artists, with Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley and Beck being named as among the early practitioners. More recent names are Bon Iver, Kings Of Convenience, the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars, with Blur’s Graham Coxon also experimenting with ‘indie folk’ on occasions.

It’s an exciting-sounding genre, on the one hand very reminiscent of the 60s and 70s music we grew up on, and on the other, having a distinct contemporary feel too. As for the Decemberists, their live shows are said to be out-of-the-world, with full-on audience participation and lots of stage effects. Though they have released a DVD called ‘The Practical Handbook’ in 2007 (which I’ve yet to watch), one hopes a new one is on the way.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Memories of another day….

ALL hardcore music buffs have nostalgia-packed tales to tell on how they got into particular musicians or bands or genres. The hitch is that only people with similar tastes identify with and appreciate such stories. Keeping that in mind, I thought I’d jot down something personal this time — probably for want of any other ‘sob’-ject to cry about in this blog. The topic is simple: how did I get into particular genres of music?

Over the years, my fortune has been that I have been exposed to and have experienced practically all genres of music closely. Good for me, not so good for those around me. Some came early on in life, and some pretty much later. Some were permanent fascinations, others were one-night bands. Many were among my favourite, some were not — specially if they were way too loud, or were overflooded with expletives.

Here, I shall stick to the musical styles I have loved most, and how and when I got deeply into them. Having grown up in Mumbai and Delhi, India, I heard a lot of Indian music, though I was lucky to have been exposed a lot of western sounds too. This article is about my early favourites in each genre, and not about my actual favourites in those styles. So in case you don’t find the name Miles Davis or Leonard Cohen or Ustad Amir Khan or Talat Mehmood, it was because I discovered them much later.

To make things simple, I shall stick to 10 genres – five international and five Indian.


Pop/ early 70s: Before pop, it was the evergreens. Back in the early 70s, when I was eight or nine, my uncle carried a portable record player whenever he visited Mumbai. His collection included Cliff Richard, Jim Reeves, Harry Belafonte and Perry Como. But the one I heard secretly in his absence was ‘The Sound Of Music’ score —I could actually operate the system at that age, and had all the making of a gadget freak which I never turned out to be.

The actual pop listening happened at the age of 15, when Boney M and ABBA were on the charts. Everybody in class heard them, and soon, we moved on to the Bee Gees with ‘Saturday Night Fever’, with some of us trying out a John Travolta hairstyle, whether it suited us or not. The ‘Grease’ soundtrack soon followed. I was studying in Delhi then, and thanks to local radio, got into Brotherhood of Man, George Baker Selection, Diana Ross, Cat Stevens and Lobo. I heard a bit of country too, like John Denver and Glen Campbell, and in a more danceable mood, it was Cerrone, Lipps Inc and Donna Summer. Aaah, lurv ta luv ya bay-beee.

Rock/ 1981: A natural evolution from pop, which suddenly became passé, the rock craze began in the last year of school and had set in by the first year of college. Yes, I had heard some songs of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Uriah Heep by then, but that was because they played on the radio, which I would switch off whenever these bands came on. Then, a couple of friends had told me about Jethro Tull, but it was only when a friend played the ‘Bursting Out Live’ tape that I became a rabid fan (or ‘rabbit’ fan, as I would say those days). Talking of Tull, I always thought ‘Aqualung my friend’ was ‘Backward on my bench’… and I promise I had a very clean mind.

Soon, it moved to Doors, Traffic, Moody Blues and Santana — followed by Floyd, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Queen, Bad Company and Allman Brothers Band. A proper exploration of the Beatles also took place. There was a bit of metal too, with Judas Priest, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Quiet Riot and the Scorpions. But that was more because it was the latest fad in college.

The Stones? Not for another seven or eight years, but once I heard them properly in the late 80s, they gave me total ‘satisfaction’.

Jazz/ 1984: A school teacher Philip Burrett, who also happened to be my neighbour, regularly played pop-jazz acts like George Benson, Grover Washington and Chuck Mangione. I would overhear them very casually, but never made a conscious attempt to get into jazz. It was at a concert by French guitarist Christian Escoude and his quartet in 1984 that I got converted. My father had a couple of invites for the show, followed by a dinner invitation from the organiser Aliiance Francaise. The host Philippe Lenglet played records of Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Thelonious Monk. Many guests appreciated them — or at least pretended they did.

A few weeks later, I heard trumpeter Woody Shaw at the Jazz Yatra in Delhi, and this was a confirmation that jazz was one of the most exciting genres around. I went on to have records taped, and my collection would soon include ‘The Best Of George Benson’, Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, Chuck Mangione’s ‘Love Notes’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’. And two rarer ones —‘In Flagranti Delicto’ by Ian Carr’s band Nucleus and ‘Live from Concord to London’ by super-singer Ernestine Anderson.

Yes, with the Shakti tour of 1984, Indo-jazz fusion also became a favourite, and it was a delight seeing guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, violinist L Shankar and ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram on stage. Their album ‘Natural Elements’ played on my system at least twice a day.

Since I am not including it as another genre, a bit about World Music. I must have had my first taste in the late 90s, with records from Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, but slowly had many favourites from different countries – Ali Farka Toure, Afro Celt Sound System, Hevia, Hugh Masakela and Angelique Kidjo coming instantly to mind.

Blues/ 1986: I had heard a fair amount of blues without knowing it was the blues. I had liked Eric Clapton, but with my limited knowledge at that time and the fact that I hadn’t grown beyond ‘Lay Down Sally’, ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and ‘Cocaine’ (the song, not the substance), I never associated him with the blues. Ernestine Anderson, whom I mentioned in the jazz section, also had some typical blues songs. Then, in 1986, thanks to an intellectual and pretty-much snobbish friend, I got into a BB King compilation. He rattled off a list of names for me to hear, but no thank you, BB King sounded good enough to BB-gin with.

Yet it took me another five or six years to begin exploring the genre deeply. Suddenly, in the early 90s, I got into Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and blues-rock musicians Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. And Eric Clapton’s 1994 release ‘From The Cradle’, which featured his version of blues classics, had made me more interested in the genre. Never mind if half the blues songs I heard started with ‘Woke up this morning and my baby had gone away… to another man… a-hoooooo’.

Western classical/ 2003: A very late arrival on my list. Yes, I had heard western classical rather sporadically, but I didn’t follow it for a long time. In the 80s, I had seen a live telecast of a Zubin Mehta concert but it all sounded Greek. As a journalist, I had interviewed classical musicians without knowing the difference between a symphony and a string quartet. God bless them.

The transformation happened during a visit to Munich in 2003, when I also made brief visits to Vienna, the capital of western classical music, and Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart. I attended quite a few concerts, including a rendition of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, Johann Strauss Jr’s ‘The Blue Danube’ played everywhere in Vienna, and while the whole of Vienna and the rest of Europe was sick and tired of hearing it, it was on the top of my charts. It was only a matter of time that I picked up a few books on western classical music, and many CDs of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Stravinsky, Chopin, etc, etc. Like many other western classical buffs I knew, I learnt the art of name-dropping. And I soon realised that an allegro was not related to an alligator.


Hindi film/ 1970: Hindi film music played all the time on the radio. A cousin was deeply into songs from Raj Kapoor films, and I quite liked some of them. But it was with Rajesh Khanna movies like ‘Aradhana’, ‘Amar Prem’, ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’, ‘Anand’ and ‘Andaz’ that I got totally hooked on to the genre.

Of course, as a kid, I never really bothered about who the music director and lyricist were. I identified the songs with the stars more, though yes, I could recognise which songs were sung by Kishore Kumar,  Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh (for his ‘Mera Naam Joker’ and ‘Anand’ songs). I had heard Rafi and Asha, without knowing they were Rafi and Asha. I was one of RD Burman’s biggest fans without really knowing of his existence.

Hindustani classical/ 1971: My mother had just begun learning from Pandit Jasraj’s senior disciple Chandrashekhar Swami. So I got to hear a bit of classical music at home — though my ‘Bachelor Boy’ and ‘Bimbo’ competed with her more traditional ‘Bhoop’ and ‘Bhimpalasi’.

We would go for most Pandit-ji’s concerts in Mumbai —still remember his rendition of ‘Malkauns’ and ‘Hansadhwani’, though I didn’t understand the difference then. I also remember attending concerts by Hirabai Badodekar, Bhimsen Joshi,  Kishori Amonkar, Ghulam Mustafa Khan and the upcoming and charismatic Parveen Sultana.

Strangely, instrumental music came much later, as my parents were more into vocal music. The only exception was Bismillah Khan, whose shehnai was played at weddings and on TV. But in 1976, at a music festival in Delhi, two instrumental performances left me dazzled – N Rajam on violin and Shivkumar Sharma on santoor. I became a huge fan of tabla player Shafaat Ahmed Khan, who accompanied Shivkumar-ji — I was yet to hear of Zakir Hussain. I also saw the great sitar player Nikhil Banerjee at a private concert, and knew of Amjad Ali Khan because he came frequently in the still-to-be-named-page 3 of those days. However, it took me a few years to get into my later favourites of Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain.

Carnatic music/ 1982: One regret is that I haven’t heard Carnatic music as much as I’d have loved to, or followed it as deeply as the true aficionados. But without getting deep into the nuances, I have always been moved by the genre.

In final year of college, a class-mate Arvind and I listened to a lot of Jethro Tull together. His parents were deeply into Carnatic music, and at his place, I had my first taste of vocalist M S Subbulakshmi and violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman. I also saw violinists T N Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan at various concerts, and found them simply outstanding. But with Arvind and I going different ways to pursue our respective career paths, there was a prolonged stoppage to my Carnatic listening. Much later, I began exploring the genre more deeply, specially after getting to know violinist L Subramaniam who gifted me a copy of his book ‘Euphony’. But as I said, there’s still a lot left to learn — though I guess I’ve learnt how to move my hands along with the music.

Ghazals/ 1982: My first exposure to ghazals came through Ghulam Ali’s ‘Chupke Chupke’, which was used in the film ‘Nikaah’.  Soon, I got some of his popular songs like ‘Awaargi’ and ‘Hungama’ recorded. The ghazal craze was in full swing in India, and very quickly, I began hearing a lot of Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Rajendra-Nina Mehta and Talat Aziz. My college friend Rahul Dutt and I would have listening sessions beginning with Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Simon & Garfunkel and Uriah Heep, but slowly moving into Pankaj Udhas and Jagjit-Chitra. Though we didn’t do it on purpose, it also ensured that a lot of unwanted elements left after the rock got over.

The first exposure to Mehdi Hassan came in 1984 when I bought some LPs from a friend. A compilation which contained ‘Ranjish hi Sahi’, ‘Mohabbat Karne Wale Kam Na Honge’, ‘Patta  Patta’ and ‘Zindagi Mein Toh Sabhi’ became instant favourites. Two years later, having taken up a job at Times of India in Jaipur, I would constantly quarrel with a flat mate Abhay Kant who insisted on playing Begum Akhtar when I needed to play Jethro Tull. Well, he never got into Tull, but I became a huge fan of Begum Akhtar.

Strangely, Sufi music came much later, sometime in 1995 when I was the only person in my group who hadn’t heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. How illiterate of me. Anyway, I became an instant fan of his and of Abida Parveen, though what irritates me today is that way people are now misusing the term Sufi music by associating it with anything that uses a few specific words and a certain style.  

Regional/ recent: As a child, I had heard a lot of Kannada film songs whenever I visited by hometown of Dharwad in north Karnataka. Besides songs sung by Dr Rajkumar, I loved the music of the film ‘Upasane’. As a child, I also managed to hear a fair amount of popular Marathi songs, and in college, there was a brief phase of Hemant Kumar’s Rabindra Sangeet, more to impress the Bengali girls.

But the actual craze for regional music is very recent, kicked off by my regular official tours. A few years ago, I got into RD Burman’s Bengali songs thanks to close friend and music buddy Hemant Kenkre, but when I visited Kolkata last year, I decided to buy a lot of Bengali music – RDB, SD Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Shyamal Mitra, Suchitra Mitra, Purandas Baul, Goshtogopal Das, to name a few.

On that tour, I decided that whenever I visited a city, I’d pick up some of its regional music. So on a visit to Bhubaneswar, I bought CDs of singer Akshaya Mohanty, whose song ‘Kishori’ is something I hear for hours on end. In Hyderabad, I bought CDs of Ghantasala and Ilayaraja, who I now believe is one of the greatest composers India has known. In Bangalore, I bought a lot of new Kannada film music. And in Amritsar, I bought a collection of shabds played at the Golden Temple. I went to a popular music store in Jaipur, and didn’t find any Rajasthani music. Jai ho.

The interesting thing about some of these genres is that I love them even if I don’t follow the language. Anyway, I guess that’s better than following the language, and not loving the music, which is happening with me in the case of a lot of newer ‘Bawly’-wood music.

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